TYSON Hay remembers a time when the prospect of Jonathan Simpkin playing AFL, let alone in a grand final, seemed far-fetched.
It was 2009 and the boy from Colac was into his second year with VFL club Geelong.
He was making regular trips up the Princes Highway to train with the Cats, but was spending most weekends playing with home club Colac.
His first chance to play in the big league had come and gone — Sydney had delisted him at the end of 2007 without playing him once in two seasons.
Simpkin was close to giving it away. The lure of running around with his mates again was strong.
“He came back for 2008 and back then we had a good side, we ended up making the grand final,” said Hay, who coached Colac from 2008 to 2010. “He was quite happy to be back playing with Colac, even though he was playing a few games with Geelong.
“The year after he was a bit in and out and at the end of 2009, that was when he said ‘I don’t know if I want to keep doing this any more’.
“Obviously driving up and down the highway on a VFL supp list is a lot of time and effort. He had done it for two years at that point.”
Hay recalls a conversation he had with Simpkin, now 25, at the end of ’09 about his football future.
He believes the onballer had similar conversations with others around him — his father Ian and Geelong VFL coach Dale Amos.
“He was using me more as a sounding board. We had a couple of beers,” Hay said. “It was definitely about whether he stayed or went. I just listened more than anything.” The result was that Simpkin would persist in the VFL, reluctant to believe his chance to play AFL was up. “From a personal point of view, I would’ve been rapt for him to play for Colac full-time,” Hay said.
“But that would’ve been against everything I believed in.”
History shows the persistence paid off. Geelong rookie-listed Simpkin for 2011 and he finally made his debut in 2012.
A season later he is at Hawthorn and is the fairytale of the 2013 AFL grand final.
Selectors this week handed Simpkin a call-up to replace Brendan Whitecross against Fremantle at the MCG today.
The catalyst was a 28-disposal, best-afield performance for Box Hill in the VFL grand final six days ago.
“You have to give him a real pat on the back for what he’s been able to achieve,” Hay said.
The late call-up has prompted a hasty change of plans for parents Ian and Marianne Simpkin, who left for Melbourne yesterday. They, along with his brothers, St Kilda backman Tom, Nick and Lachlan, will be among the thousands at the ’G.
“We thought he’d get told early in the week he wasn’t playing and they’d give the nod to (Jed) Anderson,” Ian Simpkin said.
“As the week progressed and the days went by, we thought ‘geez he might have a show’.”
Ian Simpkin said he was incredibly proud of his son, affectionately known as Joffy.
“He rang me at 2.30pm yesterday afternoon,” he said.
“I just kept saying over and over ‘you’re playing in a grand final in front of 100,000 people, I can’t believe it’.
“After all these years and the way he’s had to do it, the hard way, it’s amazing.”